BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Benjamin Bonnet of Santa Fe has asked the state Legislature’s Radioactive & Hazardous Waste Committee to conduct an open investigation into the chain of events whereby a “fissile materials training facility” was folded into SB207, the Capital Projects General Obligation Bonds Act, and “even more urgently” to halt public funding of a proposed glovebox training facility at UNM-LA. Bonnet said he wished to share his concerns and the concerns of many in the community regarding new Department of Energy workforce training initiatives in Northern New Mexico.
“As you may be aware, branch and community colleges in our region -under pressure from the Department of Energy, Triad, N3B, and some local elected officials – have over the past several years established DOE workforce training programs (“pipelines”) as part of their curricula. Designed to prepare pools of semi-skilled workers for frontline positions at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other nuclear weapons facilities, these accelerated (10-week to 2-year) programs are meant to funnel young New Mexicans into some of the most dangerous work in U.S. industry,” Bonnet said.
He said three community colleges in Northern New Mexico – Santa Fe Community College, UNM-LA, and Northern New Mexico College – have established new DOE workforce training programs.
“As part of efforts to train yet another generation for work in the DOE nuclear weapons complex, officials at UNM-LA have recently proposed to renovate several buildings on the campus to create an ‘hands-on glovebox laboratory’. The new facility is proposed for use in training current employees at LANL in the handling of fissile and other radioactive and hazardous materials -skills that LANL will need in the coming years to execute its planned mission to produce nuclear warhead triggers, often referred to as plutonium ‘pits’,” Bonnet said.
“It seems unlikely, for example, that New Mexico voters would be able to discern the true purpose of a facility described in SB 207 simply as a ‘Workforce Development and Continuing Technical Education Laboratory’, or that the public would realize that scarce New Mexico higher education funds would be used to transform buildings on the campus into a facility for training LANL employees in the production of nuclear of weapons.”
He said as the truth regarding UNM-LA’s proposed glovebox project has slowly come to light, questions have arisen among members of local communities including:
Does the “glovebox training laboratory” proposed by UNM-LA constitute an appropriate use of public funds? Why are scarce New Mexico higher education dollars being used to construct facilities needed to fulfill national security agendas? Were cuts to more urgent and legitimate higher education needs across the state made to fund UNM-LA’s subsidization of DOE/NNSA workplace training instead?
“It must be emphasized that LANL’s operating budget for FY2021 was approximately 3.5 billion dollars, making it the best-funded site in the DOE nuclear weapons complex by far; that DOE has requested a further billion for FY2022, for plutonium activities at LANL specifically; and finally, that the glovebox laboratory submitted for public funding by UNM-LA is in every respect a DOE workplace training facility,” Bonnet said. “Although funds were authorized for construction of the glovebox facility with the passage of GO Bond C, it remains an open question whether public funding of this project should proceed. As of May of this year, the facility was still in the planning stages, with construction blueprints due to NMHED and the Department of Finance and Administration for approval in the months to come.”
The Los Alamos Reporter reached out to UNM-LA Chancellor Cynthia Rooney for a response to Bonnet’s allegations. Rooney said UNM-LA is committed to serving students and supporting local employers by developing workforce programs to meet their needs and to ensure a skilled and employed workforce for the region, and that doing so requires renewed facilities and classrooms.
“We have a history of working with local employers including: Los Alamos County to develop fire science and Emergency Medical Services programs; LANL on the Mechanical Engineering program; and N3B on Radiological Control Technician and Waste Operator programs,” Rooney said. “We have also established programs in cyber-security, Certified Nursing Assistants, and expanded our welding program to meet workforce needs throughout our community.”
Most recently, she said UNM-LA is working on a Nuclear Enterprise Science and Technology program and a Project Management program.
“All of these programs benefit the citizens of our region, preparing them for employment, and all require updated classrooms and equipment. The $1.7 million of capital project funding for UNM-LA approved by the voters in November 2020 was for a ‘Workforce Development and Continuing Technical Education Classroom Renovations’ project,” Rooney said. “This project addresses needs in several classrooms in different buildings, for a variety of programs, with the goal to renew, replace, upgrade and equip space for Workforce Development /Career Technical Education programs.”
The UNM-LA campus consists of various buildings, some dating back to the late 1950s, with most built in the 1980s, and Rooney said these buildings need renewal.Taos
“The project will also be addressing important ADA improvements in the identified areas, so our campus can be accessible to all. We are thankful to the voters, legislators, and government officials for the funding that will allow us to update these various spaces around campus so that we can better prepare students for careers in our community and in New Mexico,” she said.